Cecilia (Burney novel)

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Title page from the first edition of the first volume of Cecilia

Cecilia, subtitled Memoirs of an Heiress, is a novel by Frances Burney, set in 1779 and published in 1782.


Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress was published in July 1782. Frances Burney had begun working on the novel in 1780, after her father, Dr. Charles Burney, and her literary mentor, Samuel Crisp, suppressed her first attempt at writing for the stage, The Witlings. Her disappointment in this venture, as well as the pressure she felt to produce a novel in order to capitalize on the success of her first work Evelina, seems to have placed considerable strain on Burney, and may have colored the tone and content of her second published work.[1]


Cecilia opens with the beautiful 20 year-old heroine, Cecilia Beverley, saying goodbye to her country home to go on a journey to London. She is an orphan heiress (£3000 a year as soon as she becomes of age, with a smaller personal fortune of £10,000). But she will inherit her money only if her husband will take her surname, that is, become Mr. Beverley.

She is going to live with one of her guardians, Mr. Harrel, but is invited first to her friend Mr. Monckton’s house for breakfast. Mr. Monckton has married to an old, ugly woman for her money, and secretly loving Cecilia, wants to marry her as soon as his own wife dies: because of this, he is afraid that Cecilia might fall in love or forget him while in London, and warns her continually to be careful of all ‘temptations.’ At his house she meets Mr. Morrice, a young lawyer who tries to flatter everyone who is important; Captain Aresby, who likes to compliment ladies in fancy words; and Mr. Belfield, a clever, lively, proud young man who can’t settle down. Mr. Monckton’s wife and her servant, Miss Bennet, who helps Mr. Monckton with his schemes, are also there. Cecilia notes the sharp behavior of an old man sitting quietly in the corner. She also does not understand why Lady Margaret (Mr. Monckton’s wife) dislikes her so much.

Mr. Harrel was the husband of her childhood friend, Priscilla. But Cecilia is sad to see that Mrs. Harrel doesn’t care about her, and has become a silly, worldly, money-spending person. On the first day of her arrival, Mrs. Harrel presents her to her “friends,” and every day is filled with parties and worldly plans which soon tire Cecilia. She sees Captain Aresby and Mr. Morrice again, and is introduced to many people, such as the insolent Sir Robert Floyer, who soon begins to try to marry her for her money; Mrs. Harrel’s gentle, serious, and shy brother Mr. Arnott, who falls in love with Cecilia; the studier of characters, Mr. Gosport; the very silly, very chatty Miss Larolles; and proud, silent Miss Leeson, but cannot truly be attached to any of them. Mr. Monckton visits her, and she greets him with a real happiness which delights him.

Cecilia goes to an opera, where she sees the strange, gruff old man again – his name is Albany. He shouts out at her a strange warning that she is in danger from the people around her, and she should be helping the poor, and leaves. The next morning she sees a poor but honest woman named Mrs. Hill, who comes and begs her to help her and her starving family, because Mr. Harrel refused to pay them. Cecilia tries to make him pay, but he makes useless excuses constantly, and finally, Mr. Arnott, feeling sorry for the Hills, lent him the money to pay them at last.

Cecilia, shocked at the meanness of Mr. Harrel, decided to see if she could stay with any of her other guardians, but finds out they are, in different ways, perhaps just as bad: while Mr. Harrel spends and gambles his money, her other guardian, Mr. Briggs, is a selfish miser, and Mr. Delvile is a vain man, over-proud of his family.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Harrel holds a masquerade party, in which a black demon keeps on hanging around her and fighting anyone who comes near (actually Mr. Monckton in disguise). A white domino, Mr. Arnott, Mr. Gosport, and Mr. Belfield, whom she meets again dressed up a knight, help her. Cecilia is delighted with the white domino, and surprised at how well he knows the faults of her guardians, she wonders who he can be.

Finally getting as tired of being by herself as being partying, she decides to join Mrs. Harrel to go to the Opera again. There, she meets Mr. Belfield, who offers to help her out of her seat, but Sir Robert Floyer, pushing rudely by him, tries to help her himself. She refuses him coldly, and furious, he quarrels with Mr. Belfield and they almost duel. Terrified, Cecilia cried out, “Oh stop him!—good God! Will nobody stop him!”—at which a young man rushes up to Sir Robert Floyer; after trying to stop him, he reassures Cecilia. Embarrassed and annoyed, Cecilia hurries away to her house, and worries over the duel.

The next morning, the same man comes to her telling her that they had dueled: Mr. Belfield has been a little hurt, but Sir Robert Floyer unhurt. Cecilia finds out that he is the white domino she saw at the masquerade party, and also that he is proud Mr. Delvile’s son! Soon after, she meets Mrs. Delvile, and is delighted to see that she is a kind, witty, and refreshingly elegant lady, and begins to think of staying with them, instead of with the Harrels. However, she is annoyed to find that Mortimer Delvile (the white domino) first thinks that she is in love with Mr. Belfield, and then seems to think that she is engaged with Sir Robert Floyer. Indeed, Sir Robert Floyer has asked her to marry him, and though she firmly refused him, Mr. Harrel told everyone (including Mr. Delvile) that they will be married soon. Later, she meets Mr. Albany again, who introduces her to a pretty young girl, saying to Cecilia that she should help her. Cecilia finds out, with horror, that Mr. Belfield’s wound was really serious, but because he did not have enough money he could not call a doctor. She helps the Belfields, and begins a warm friendship with the girl (Belfield’s sister, Henrietta), and also finds out that Mortimer Delvile, too, is helping them. More and more disgusted with Sir Robert Floyer’s rude boldness, and the Harrels’ silliness, she stays for a short, but very happy, while with Mrs. Delvile, whom she begins to really love, and Mortimer. However, Mr. Monckton, alarmed at her growing attachment to the Delviles, says bitter lies about them. Cecilia, however, cannot believe him, and she finally realizes she has fallen in love with Mortimer. However, she is displeased to see that he still seems to think she is engaged with Sir Robert Floyer. Meanwhile, Mr. Harrel, by threatening her with his own suicide, forces Cecilia to lend him his money for his debts. Cecilia tries hard to warn Mrs. Harrel not to spend money so thoughtlessly, but silly and weak, she will not listen to her friend.

The next day she went to Mr. Delvile’s house and asked him to help her, as Sir Robert Floyer’s attentions more and more displeased her, and Mr. Harrel was absolutely no help. Mr. Delvile is suddenly called away, and Mortimer is very greatly excited and surprised by her announcement. However, when she meets him again she is hurt and surprised by his sudden coldness to her, and wonders at it.

Mr. Harrel loses at gambling more, much, much more, than he is able to pay; and his sudden violent behavior to his wife frightens Cecilia very much. He suddenly takes them all to Vauxhall, where, after drinking, he suddenly kisses his wife and shoots himself. Cecilia meets Mortimer, and frightened by her terror, he forgets to be cold, and takes her and Mrs. Harrel to Mrs. Delvile himself. They travel to Delvile Castle, where Cecilia finds Mortimer’s behavior yet more confusing, and Mrs. Delvile makes clear to her that she does not want Cecilia to marry her son. Lady Honoria, a relative of Mrs. Delvile’s, comes and teases her about Mortimer. Finally he explains that he cannot marry her, deeply as he loves her, because then he would have to change his name from Delvile to Beverley; and because he cannot bear to see her anymore, he has to leave the country. Angry and proud, though hurt inside, Cecilia says goodbye to him coolly; and when Mrs. Delvile decides to go see her son, she goes to her old family friend, Mrs. Charlton, and stays with her instead. While there, Mr. Biddulph, a man who used to like her, and a friend of Mortimer’s, sees with surprise that she is embarrassed whenever he talks about his friend, and tells that to Mortimer in a letter: confused, Mortimer decides to see for himself. Lady Honoria plays a trick by stealing Mortimer’s dog, Fidel, and giving it to Cecilia to tease her; and one day, Cecilia, patting the dog, talked to him about her love for Mortimer, and how much she missed him – and looking up, saw—Mortimer!

Amazed and delighted that she loved him, and was not cold towards him, as he had thought, he asks her to marry him. She does not want to at first, but cannot hide how much she loves him; but she is very angry when he suggests that they have a secret marriage! He explains that he is sure that his parents will never, ever allow their marriage, and even though Cecilia is afraid and feels guilty, she says yes. She innocently tells Mr. Monckton about her plans, and furious, he does his best to break them up. When they were in the middle of the marriage, he sent Miss Bennet, Lady Margaret’s servant, and his helper, to interrupt it; and Mrs. Delvile, hearing of it, came and made clear to Cecilia that what Mortimer said was true – she will never let them marry. Cecilia is very unhappy, but she loves Mrs. Delvile too much to make her hate her, and finally agrees that she will not meet Mortimer. Mortimer, however, insisted on seeing her again. Because of this, all three came together for a last meeting. Mortimer, forgetting to be proud, and begged Cecilia to be his wife, and says he doesn’t care if he is Mr. Beverley or not: Mrs. Delvile, horrified, suddenly falls so ill that both Mortimer and Cecilia are frightened, and finally decide to do as she says, and never meet each other again. They part.

Mrs. Delvile, after kissing Cecilia goodbye gratefully, leaves as soon as she becomes a little better: and Cecilia is very unhappy. Mr. Albany comes, however, and says that his sadness was greater, and tells his history—how he loved a woman, but she became a prostitute, and after a fight, she died without talking or moving, and this made him crazy for three years. Cecilia listens to this bitter story, and decides that she is not really as unhappy as she thinks she is, and hopes, more cheerfully, to help the poor. The next day, however, Mrs. Charlton suddenly dies, and she is again sad and lonely.

She goes to London and fetches Henrietta Belfield. Because she is now old enough to have her fortune, she buys a quiet house in her neighborhood and lives there with her. She is shocked by Mortimer’s sudden visit there, and finds out that Mrs. Delvile has said that if she will give up her fortune (then Mortimer will not be Mr. Beverley, but Mr. Delvile), she can marry her son. Mortimer happily says that they can just marry with her personal fortune. Cecilia, horrified, tells him that she has none of her personal fortune left, having lent most of it to Mr. Harrel, and used the rest for other things, such as helping the Hills. Cecilia also finds out that somebody told all of this already, but with lots of lies, to Mr. Delvile. She begins to suspect Mr. Monckton. Mrs. Delvile says yes, but Mr. Delvile says so many bad things about Cecilia that they argue, and separate. Cecilia and Mortimer marry quietly and happily.

Two days later, Mrs. Matt, one of the poor people she has helped, tells her who stopped her first wedding—Miss Bennet! Cecilia quickly figures out that the person who sent her must have been Mr. Monckton. She also realizes that he, too, must have been the one who lied so bitterly about her to Mr. Delvile. Shortly after, a servant comes and tells her that Mr. Monckton is dead.

Soon after, Mortimer comes and tells her that he, too, had found out Mr. Monckton’s meanness, and he had angrily told Mr. Monckton to tell Mr. Delvile the truth about Cecilia. Mr. Monckton just as angrily said no, and they shot each other in a furious fight. Mortimer was safe, but Mr. Monckton, even though he was not dead, became hurt. Cecilia tells him to leave England with his mother before she can hear about the fight, and agreeing, he goes. However, her marriage has been heard of, and her fortune is suddenly taken away from her while Mortimer is gone. Confused and unhappy, and now unable to live in the house she bought, she tells Henrietta to live with Mrs. Harrel and Mr. Arnott while she looks for Mortimer, and goes to Mr. Belfield to ask for help; but when she goes there, Mortimer suddenly walks into the room and sees them together.

Angry, surprised, and jealous, he leaves. Cecilia begins to grow crazy. She tries to go to Mr. Delvile for help, but he proudly refuses to see her. At last, some people, thinking she has escaped from a hospital for crazy people, lock her up in a room and write in a newspaper about her. Albany recognizes her, and calls Mortimer to come quickly; Henrietta, too, reads the newspaper, recognizes her, and hurries to see her. Mortimer sees her, and terrified, quickly calls his old friend Dr Lyster to heal Cecilia. Even though she grows crazier and crazier in a fever, she finally heals, and she and Mortimer say sorry to each other and explain what really happened. Mr. Delvile, feeling very guilty when he hears that Cecilia almost died, finally lets her and Mortimer come to his house and see him again. There, they meet Lady Honoria, and Dr Lyster says his famous speech about pride and prejudice.

In the end, they live happily together, and later, Mrs. Delvile’s sister gives Cecilia a lot of money when she dies, so Cecilia can begin helping the poor again with Albany, who is very happy that she did not die. As for the rest of the characters, Mrs. Harrel marries again, and soon begins to have parties and “friends” again; the gentle Mr. Arnott and Henrietta marry; Mr. Belfield still cannot settle down to a job, but finally, with the help of Mortimer, goes into the army and is happy.


  • Cecilia Beverley: an heiress who moves from Bury, Suffolk to London to live with the Harrels. She is described as being very lovely and joins innocence with intelligence. She is open and liberal, and is ever ready and eager to help others and defend justice.
  • The Dean: Cecilia's uncle who died shortly before the beginning of the story. He left her an inheritance and arranged for her guardians (none of whom are very well chosen). The inheritance, however, will only be given to Cecilia if her husband consents to take her surname.
  • Priscilla Harrel: Cecilia's childhood friend. Cecilia is dismayed to learn that since Mrs. Harrel's marriage and removal to town, she has become a thoughtless, extravagant socialite.
  • Mr. Harrel: Mrs. Harrel's husband and one of Cecilia's guardians. He alarms Cecilia by his careless behavior towards others and his wild spending. Gaming and extravagance bring upon his ruin, and he kills himself at last by suicide.
  • Mr. Briggs: one of Cecilia's guardians and a miser. He is described as being short and stocky, and his dialect is some of the most ungrammatical in the whole book.
  • Mr. Delvile: one of Cecilia's guardians, notable for his extreme pride. His pompous condescension towards Cecilia mortifies her severely.
  • Augusta Delvile: Mr. Delvile's proud but elegant, intelligent and kind wife; she is "not more than fifty years of age," and retains proofs of former loveliness. She is revered by her son, and she and Cecilia develop a strong and mutual regard for each other. Cecilia finds her company refreshing after living with the Harrels
  • Mortimer Delvile: The Delviles' son; often referred to as "young Delvile." He is tall and finely formed, and though his features are not handsome, they are full of expression. Cecilia eventually realizes that she loves him, but is uncertain that he returns her affection or that he is as good as he seems. He has strong passions, but has some of his parents' pride which creates a struggling conflict of pride and affection at first.
  • Mr. Monckton: an old acquaintance from the country. In his youth, he married the much older Lady Margaret for her money, only to meet the rich, intelligent, and charming Cecilia later. He plays on Cecilia's hopes and fears in an attempt to keep her single until his wife dies and he can marry her. He grows very jealous of Mortimer Delvile when he observes Cecilia's partiality for him, and by disparaging her to the Delviles and trying to prevent their marriage, he does all in his power to break them up. When Mortimer Delvile learns of his shameless perfidy, he is angered to the point of challenging Mr. Monckton to a duel.
  • Lady Margaret Monckton: the rich, unpleasant, and elderly wife of Mr. Monckton. She is very jealous of the unsuspicious and innocent Cecilia.
  • Sir Robert Floyer: Mr. Harrel's arrogant associate and unwelcome suitor to Cecilia. Mr. Harrel relentlessly promotes the match between Sir Robert and Cecilia, even spreading gossip about it and keeping Sir Robert ignorant of Cecilia's refusal.
  • Mr. Belfield: an acquaintance of Mr. Monckton. Despite his potential and honorable nature, he is ruined by his attempts to cover up his humble origins as a tradesman's son.
  • Henrietta Belfield: the youngest of Mr. Belfield's sisters. Henrietta and her mother move in with her wounded brother and through Albany, is befriended by Cecilia. She is sweet tempered, grateful, and amiable, and adores Cecilia. She secretly cherishes a hopeless passion for Mortimer Delvile. She later marries the gentle Mr. Arnott.
  • Mrs. Belfield: Mr. Belfield's mother and the widow of a shopkeeper. She is a coarse woman who spoils her son, often to the exclusion of her daughter, and angers Cecilia by her brazen suggestions of marrying her son.
  • Mrs. Hill: a poor but honest woman whose husband was Mr. Harrel's carpenter. Her son Billy died before her first appearance in the story and her husband has been fatally injured while working for Mr. Harrel, leaving Mrs. Hill and her young daughters to perform hard labor and nearly starve to death. When Cecilia learns that Mr. Harrel has refused to honor his debt to the Hills, she comes to the family's aid.
  • Albany: an older man who makes speeches against the uncharitable use of riches - "his friends call him the 'moralist'; the young ladies, the 'crazy-man'; the maccaronis, the 'bore'; in short, he is called by any and every name but his own."
  • Mr. Arnott: Mrs. Harrel's brother. He is in love with Cecilia and will do just about anything to win her good opinion but has little hope of her returning his affection. Cecilia cannot return his love, but values his gentle and amiable qualities and is shocked when they are taken advantage of by Mr. Harrel.
  • Mr. Marriot: a wealthy but "simple" young man with Cecilia dances at the Harrels' ball. Mr. Harrel uses his attraction for Cecilia in an attempt to raise money.
  • Mr. Gosport: an older man and studier of absurd characters. He often appears to instruct Cecilia in the ways of the Ton (the upper-class trendsetters of London society of the era).
  • Captain Aresby: an overly gallant officer that Cecilia first meets at the Monckton's. Mr. Gosport classfies him as part of Jargonist sect of the Ton, due to his pretentious use of fashionable jargon.
  • Miss Larolles: a leader of the Voluble sect of the Ton (according to Mr. Gosport's classification).
  • Miss Leeson: a leader of the Supercilious sect of the Ton. Cecilia is mortified by her failure at conversation with her.
  • Mr. Meadows: a leader of the Insensibilist sect of the Ton, who strives to find everything dull.
  • Mr. Morrice: a sycophant whom Cecilia meets at the Moncktons'. He abuses his very slight acquaintance with Cecilia to visit her at the Harrels', and is probably used by Mr. Monckton to try to prevent Cecilia's marriage.
  • Mr. Hobson and Mr. Simkins: two of Mr. Harrel's creditors, introduced at the Vauxhall scene. Mr. Hobson is more financially settled and less respectful towards the upper class, while Mr. Simkins is less settled and more servile.
  • Lady Honoria Pemberton: a relative of the Delviles, whom Cecilia meets during her stay at Delvile Castle. She is quick and very high-spirited, but without discretion or delicacy for others, and often torments Cecilia with her thoughtless remarks and arch raillery. She enjoys infuriating the haughty Mr. Delvile by giddy remarks on his castle, such as calling it a gaol.
  • Mrs. Charlton: a generous and extremely kind-hearted old woman, who was an old friend of Cecilia's. She is not very bright or quick, but has an excellent heart, an amiable disposition, and a very sweet temper. She has two narrow-minded and rapacious granddaughters, both single, whom she loves dearly; however, her excessive fondness for Cecilia is superior even to the affection she cherishes for them. Cecilia, in return, looks up to her as a mother and a friend. Though Cecilia is little assisted by her counsel, she is always sure of Mrs. Charlton's ready sympathy, and is greatly shocked and saddened by her death.


Jane Austen referred to Cecilia and other novels in her novel, Northanger Abbey: “'And what are you reading, Miss — ?' 'Oh! It is only a novel!' replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. 'It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda'; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best–chosen language."[2]

The title of Austen's Pride and Prejudice may have been inspired by a passage at the end of Cecilia: “remember: if to pride and prejudice you owe your miseries, so wonderfully is good and evil balanced, that to pride and prejudice you will also owe their termination.”[3]

In Persuasion, Anne Elliot alludes to "the inimitable Miss Larolles."[4]

In Thackeray's Vanity Fair, Rebecca Sharp writes to Amelia Sedley and says they "used to read Cecilia at Chiswick."[5]


  1. ^ The Literary Encyclopedia
  2. ^ Northanger Abbey, Chapter 5
  3. ^ Writing Pride and Prejudice, available online: [1]. Retrieved 10/28/07.
  4. ^ Persuasion, Chapter 20
  5. ^ Vanity Fair, Chapter 8

Klekar, Cynthia. “‘Her Gift was Compelled’: Gender and the Failure of the ‘Gift’ in Cecilia.Eighteenth-Century Fiction 18, no. 1 (Fall 2005): 177-94.

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